1928 - Alderson High School - 1968


Mary Estella Nelson, Teacher Extraordinaire

Amanda Iodice - May 9, 2011

I was reading “Cleopatra: a Life” by Stacy Schiff recently. Cleopatra was evidently a well-educated woman of style, ambition and audacity. Indeed she was undoubtedly an “uppity woman”. During the years, my husband has given me several of the “Uppity Women” series. There is one on Uppity Women in the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance Era, probably the Industrial Revolution and others. They consist of vignettes of women who have done outstanding things long before Gloria Steinem burned her bra and Betty Friedan stridently exhorted women to rise up and make waves!

The Alderson school system during the 1930s,1940s and 1950s had many women like this. They taught Cursive handwriting, English, Arithmetic, Geography, Spelling, Health & Hygiene, History, Good Manners, Sewing and Cooking, Music, even Conflict Resolution, indeed, many other life skills. Miss Jones, Miss Echols, Miss McVey, Mrs. Skaggs, Mrs. Keadle, Mrs. Macmillan are but a few names that come to mind.  

The one I remember most vividly, however, is Miss Stella Nelson. Miss Nelson’s father, Charles Marion Nelson, was a teacher, as was her mother, Elizabeth Kershner Nelson and all three of her sisters, too.  

Born near Wolf Creek on February 26, 1891, she attended the Baptist Academy, Concord Normal School and received her AB degree from William and Mary College.  Miss Nelson also did graduate work at West Virginia University, University of Chicago and the University of Kentucky, and, she was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. Wow!  

Her teaching career began in a one-room schoolhouse in the Wolf Creek community in Monroe County. She later taught in the Alderson Elementary schools, was Principal and teacher at Gary No. 4 Mining operation in McDowell County and at the Alderson Jr. Baptist Academy. Miss Nelson’s resume also includes serving as supervisor of elementary education in Henrico County, Virginia. 

In the fall of 1931, Miss Stella Nelson joined the faculty at Alderson High School where she taught English and Mathematics for 28 years. During World War II, she was also the Principal of A.H.S. 

Those of us who went through school there in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s should well remember the English classes. During my years, we had a Prose and Poetry book for literature and workbooks for English Grammar. Each year the new textbooks reinforced what we had learned previously, then went further to open new horizons as well. Those workbooks should be required for every school in the nation today. Anyone who completed all of them should never have forgotten how to properly use “bring and take”, “lie and lay”, and “sit and set”.  

None of us would EVER dare to say “between you and I”, or “Susie and me are going to town”. We all had exercises on the subjunctive, learning the sadly, now lost “If I HAD gone to town, I WOULD HAVE mailed the letter. It seems that “would of”or “woulduv” has poisoned the language of today. 

Ah yes, Miss Nelson’s English Classes… I remember the time one boy had not done his homework and Miss Nelson sent him packing to Mr. Mitchell’s office. He went strolling down the hall singing “Here comes Heaven Again” at the top of his lungs, but the next day, considerably chastened, he handed in the assignment.  

There was the student, who, when asked to interpret the poetry, “I wrapped the draperies of my couch about me and lay down to pleasant dreams” told the class it was “about some guy who rolled up in the window curtains and nodded off on the sofa.” 

Despite these and many other even more colorful stories, I never saw Miss Nelson lose her composure. She had dark hair, streaked with gray, always worn in a neat bun at the nape of her neck. Even on the most hectic of days, she rarely had more than one or two wisps escaping the hairpins at the end of the day. Her posture was impeccable, straight spine, regal carriage, serious expression, but if one looked closely behind the glasses there was a usually hint of humor in her eyes.  

However, in addition to English and Mathematics, Miss Nelson also sponsored the Thespian Club and the “Aldersonian”. She undertook these tasks without the extra pay that teachers today get for such endeavors, if they even deign to undertake them. I cannot remember whether we used that jelly stuff to print the paper, or whether we had advanced to a mimeograph machine by then. I do remember lectures on proper layout, interview techniques, and the “who, what, where, when and why rules” as well as serious talks on responsible journalism.

The Thespians were another matter. It was in 1937-1938 that Miss Neslon’s Senior Class presented “Tomahawk”. It was widely acclaimed and was the first of many annual productions for Alderson High School. It must have been difficult for her to find something worthwhile that we could do without paying exorbitant royalties year after year. She directed, produced, designed the sets and cajoled the shop teachers into helping build them.  

My favorite performance was “Little Women.” I was cast as Jo and I was supposed to climb out a window at the rear of the stage. During dress rehearsal, I caught my long skirt on a nail and fell through with a terrible crash almost destroying the set.  

Finally, in 1958, Miss Nelson was named “Teacher of the Year” an honor long and well deserved.  

Stella Nelson was an amazing woman for her time and place and each and every one of us is richer for her dedication, integrity and tireless efforts on behalf of her students and her community.

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